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Obituary: Abdoulaye Ndiaye

IN FRANCE, as in Britain, the 80th anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 was celebrated with a particular emotion.

It was clear that the number of those who had served in the First World War and who were still alive had been dramatically reduced. Would there be anyone still alive next year? Therefore a number of former soldiers, of whom the youngest was 98 and the oldest was 107, were decorated with the Legion d'Honneur by the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.

But, in addition, one soldier was to receive the same decoration in his home village in Africa. Abdoulaye Ndiaye, aged 104 (or 109, by his own report) was to be honoured by the French ambassador in Dakar, who would make his way to Thiovor, with its 1500 inhabitants, on 11 November. But the day before, as he was choosing the tunic that he would wear, the last of the Senegalese riflemen collapsed and died.

This death has aroused much emotion in France, not only because of the particular circumstances in which it took place, but because there was a real interest in recalling the role that troops from overseas France played in the First World War (and subsequently in the second). It has been said that 180,000 troops were mobilised who came from French West Africa and that 25,000 of them perished. But because these figures were small, compared with the numbers of Frenchmen who served in the army and compared with the terrible numbers of Frenchmen who were killed, they have invariably been overlooked.

It was General Charles Mangin who, in his 1910 book La Force Noire, sought to supplement the demographic weakness of France by calling upon the manpower reserves of the French colonial empire. In 1915 he spoke of an army of half a million men coming from West Africa and Indo-China. The case of Abdoulaye Ndiaye shows that events did not follow such grand aspirations.

His earliest memories of the French, as he told the journalists who visited him, were of traders who bought ground-nut oil and of soldiers who protected the Africans from the "Moors" who sought to enslave them. Then, one day, the French military arrived in the village and said that because France had brought the benefits of civilisation, they must in return protect France against her enemies.

Apparently certain individuals were forced to volunteer. But a cousin of Ndiaye refused and went into hiding. Consequently, his father, Ndiaye's uncle, was imprisoned. But he was of noble caste and Ndiaye felt obliged to volunteer in order that he should be released. Hence he found himself, along with 10 others from the village, undergoing medical tests in Louga, travelling from Dakar to Morocco, and from there to Marseilles.

During this time he received instruction in the French language, which was all the more necessary since the West African contingent did not all speak the same language. He was also given an elementary military training. All this must have been very rapid, since his military record, as documented in the archives, show him as being on the front in Belgium, where he was wounded, in August 1914. (The order for general mobilisation was issued in Paris on the afternoon of Saturday 1 August, and the German declaration of war on France was 3 August.)

We know that he spent some time in hospital after this wound and we know that he always carried the scars on the top of his head. But, as he was also wounded on the Somme in July 1916 it is not clear what experience followed which wounding.

He appears to have seen much of the war. In addition to fighting on the Northern Front in 1915 he took part in the Dardanelles expedition. Britain and France had declared war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914 but the French High Command had been reluctant to take troops away from the vital Western Front and had only consented to send a contingent made up of Foreign Legionnaires, troops who had been in depots and Senegalese.

Ndiaye remembered catching a glimpse of Istanbul in the mist, but as a Muslim, he remembered particularly that the French commander thought that he would surprise the enemy by attacking on a Friday, the day of prayer. He remembered that he and some of his companions wept because they did not want to make war against fellow Muslims.

He had no feelings about the Germans. He knew nothing about them except that they were very cunning and that they wanted to kill him. He was young and strong. He recalled breaking a German soldier's legs before making him prisoner. He found two Germans hiding in a shell hole and threw his grenade at them. He never thought of disobeying orders but he was thinking of his uncle back in Thiowor. If he were to desert that would bring shame on him.

He met many French people, since, apart from his stays in hospital, he and other African troops were moved south during the winter, and he seems to have spent some time in Saint Raphael. There were French people who had never seen anyone as black as him, and they asked if it was the sun that had made him thus, "or was it the work of God?" French women, he claimed, gave him food and some of them wanted to make love with him, but he refused.

After the Dardanelles he fought on the Somme, at Verdun in 1917 and again in 1918. He was made a corporal. After the armistice he was given the Croix de Guerre and asked to re-enlist. But, according to one French journalist, he wanted to get back to his mother, his brother and his camel. He lived the rest of his days in Thiowor.

In many ways he was like any old soldier, talking about "14 to 18", remembering his old army number (14576), recalling the discomforture of the trenches. Perhaps he did not know how rare it was for the French to recognise the role of the troops from l'Afrique Noire. It was not until May 1983 that a movement acknowledged "the memory of the Senegalese soldiers who died in the battle of the Chemin des Dames".

Ndiaye did discover that a war pension was due to him as a soldier who had been wounded. This was in 1949. He received from that date a regular monthly pension which was much less that that received by men of French nationality. But it kept his family, some 30 people in all, in their primitive comfort. He also received the right to travel on French railways at a reduced rate.

Abdoulaye Ndiaye, soldier: born Thiovor, Senegal 1894; married; died Thiovor 10 November 1998.